In four years, Kalaheo has gone from relative obscurity as a small school sandwiched between Windward rivals Kailua and Castle to a perennial power atop the state paddling leaderboard.
The high school known best for its exploits on the basketball court now shares its spotlight with canoe paddling, which, for the time being, has taken over as the school’s banner sport.
As Julian Wicker wraps up his fourth season as head coach of the Kalaheo paddling team, he has orchestrated the school’s metamorphosis from paddling team to program — a distinction marked by the ability to graduate successful student-athletes while filling their vacated spots with capable replacements year after year.
One such athlete is Nick Herrera, a senior at Kalaheo poised to help the program contend for multiple league and state titles in the coming weeks.
The Mustangs’ resurgence has been aided by the local canoe clubs feeding Kalaheo’s squad, including two-time defending Oahu Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association champion Kailua Canoe Club. The club is based just miles from the Mustangs’ campus and shares its practice site and canoe house with the high school.
"A majority of our kids paddle over the summer for their respective clubs, so they have a good foundation," Wicker said. "When they come to us, we help hone their skills to make them better paddlers. It’s a year-to-year thing. We have the up-and-comers, and the veteran leaders to help us.
"We coaches are friends. We get together a few nights a week and put in more hours than most might think. We have a lot of heart, and the kids see that, and they become friends too. That’s the key to any successful crew: liking who you paddle with. It’s more than just paddling, it’s the other things that count too."
Herrera was a member of Kailua Canoe Club’s state championship 15-and-under team this past summer, and has developed steadily through Wicker’s program to become one of the team’s senior leaders.
"He’s a pretty vocal leader in and out of the boat," Wicker said. "For his experience level, he has a good deal of knowledge. He brings that, and that’s what you look for. You don’t want an inexperienced paddler trying to lead the team."
While he has embraced the leadership role, Herrera remains humble and emphasizes the team concept when talking about his crew’s high hopes for the upcoming league and state championship races.
"We all did well at Kailua (Canoe Club), and we have the training and mind-set to try and get to the top," said Herrera. "(Our coaches) give us a lot of good training. If we stick to it we seem to do well. It works. Our coaches know a lot, and they have taught us that it takes all six in the boat to be successful, not just one guy."
Wicker hopes his program can continue to build on its recent postseason success.
The Mustangs earned the boys state championship title in 2008 — the first and only time an Oahu Interscholastic Association school has done so in the nine-year history of the state tournament.
Then last year, Kalaheo notched another gold medal, this time in the mixed division, a race that involves three girl and three boy paddlers.
"The big goal is to win states," Wicker said. "It’s great winning the OIA, as competitors you want to win everything. But, to challenge the private schools and all the other schools across the state and do well is quite an accomplishment."
In addition to his exploits on the water, Herrera leads a community service project to raise money for the program, including funds for equipment and maintenance. He also wrote the Youth Leadership Grant to get the process started. The grant was made possible by the Castle Foundation and funds up to $5,000 based on volunteers working roughly 500 hours, which Kalaheo spreads out over various Sundays.
The project site is located in Heeia, just mauka of the historic fishpond, and involves the paddling team working to clear land to create a loi (taro patch) while also clearing an adjacent stream.
"I want the kids to take the lead and take care of their resources. I love that they come down here and put in the effort," said Kalaheo assistant coach Brad Wong. "It’s a team effort on the water, and as coaches, to see them come together on a job like this, it helps them come together as friends, so it makes things more fun when they’re paddling. Also, it enhances their cultural awareness as they learn to take care of their resources and love the ocean."